Thursday, October 18, 2007

School Vouchers Revisited

On Monday, I posted my concerns regarding the school voucher program. Many were perhaps misguided because of the patchy information I had gotten on the issue. One reader (I have a reader?? Yay!) pointed out in my comments that there is a voter information packet located here: http://elections.utah.gov/Voter%20Information%20Pamphlet_2007.pdf. It provides an impartial analysis on the referendum, as well as arguments both for and against the referendum.

Admitting that I was not completely informed, I promised that I would read through it. I ignored the arguments for and against, and instead looked at the impartial analysis. Here is what I found regarding my concerns:

Current Private School Students getting Voucher Funds
The bill specifically states that the student needs to be enrolled into a public school in January 1, 2007 before they can be eligible. This means that the students that are currently in private schools are not eligible for voucher funds, and therefore will not be taking any money from taxpayers without giving some back to public schools. Good, that's one concern that is cleared up.

Standards for Private School Teachers
There are also standards set for private school teachers, meaning that the school must higher "teachers with at least a college degree or with special expertise". Again, there is no mention of any teaching certificate, any requirement for a teacher to have any knowledge of developmental psychology, educational theory, or teaching skill.

Now, I know there are a lot of people that think anyone can "teach". Well, anyone can stand in front of a group and spout out a bunch of facts. But teaching requires an organization of materials that build upon each other, leading the student to that moment of understanding. SME's (Subject Matter Experts) may be able to provide information, but they can't always teach. Teachers don't spend an extra year in college just for the fun of it, they are learning how to present their material in an orderly way, while appealing to multiple learning methods.

Impact on School Districts
The estimates on savings for school districts fall between 2.4 to 11.5 million dollars in the first year, and growing to 11 million to 28 million dollars by the program's 13th year. These estimates are State wide, but there is no mention of the distribution of private schools across the state, and which school districts will get the most benefit.

Then, of course, with the push to divide the largest school districts into East and West side locations, this becomes a scary situation for those schools on the West side of the Salt Lake valley. They are already suffering by a disparity in quality facilities, suffering because of the lower income locations they service.

These are areas that don't have private schools, because the families can't even close the gap between the voucher money and the remaining $12,000.00 a year required for private school tuition. Will these West side schools get additional funding? Not if the school districts are divided, because "each school district receives State funds under a formula based on the number of students enrolled in the school district... The Parent Choice in Education Program [vouchers] allows a school district to continue to receive a portion of the per-student state funding." To those of us living on the West side it sounds like a veiled attempt to increase funding to school districts in the richer areas, leaving the poorer areas out in the cold in the promised "more funding" argument.

Where do the Funds Come From?
This was a big concern, and it seems that the general State tax revenues are going to pay for the vouchers. That money earmarked for Education is not touched, so that is at least a relief. But, can it be sustained? We have a surplus now, but for how long? If the economy hits a rough patch (i.e. the housing market takes a huge dive to follow the nation), then most likely this program will be one of the first to get sacrificed for essential State funding.

Qualifications for Vouchers
To qualify, the student must" be born after September 1, 2001, be enrolled as a full-time student in a Utah Public school on January 1, 2007, not be a Utah Resident on January 2007, or be in a lower income family". Also, the student must be between 5 and 19 years, or if not graduated from High School, can extend to 21 years. So, out of state families that move into Utah could potentially be eligible based on family income.

This is a great move to increase a growing need for a labor force, but how do we know there will not be an overwhelming push on the private school system? More schools will need to be built, in more residential neighborhoods with little or no traffic assessments being made. Think I'm over-reacting? That's what happened in Bluffdale. Of course, this speaks to the poor planning and construction requirements in general, which is a completely different issue. ^_^

Constant Court Battles Over State Funds to Religious Private Schools
One glaring problem is the availability of State funds to religious private schools. Personally, I don't care if someone want's to go to a religious school. In fact, I think they will be better off over all. But Federal and State constitutions prohibit the use of public funds for religious purposes. This means lawsuits being filed, years of court battles, and State money being funneled into the courts to fight the suits.

Now, here is how I see it play out: It makes it all the way to the State Supreme Court, which will probably vote in favor of the program. Then it gets pushed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is notorious for reversing decisions like this from the State Supreme Court. If it eventually gets pushed to the US Supreme Court, they will most likely not even hear the case unless backed by other States looking to do the same thing. All that money, and I don't think it will be implemented anyway.

So, that is my take on the voucher system, now that I have had a more informed look at the facts. There is still no accreditation program for private schools (I'm sorry, but just issuing a student achievement tests isn't enough unless it is answerable to the State), no requirements for teachers to have any education background (that is education techniques, not their own education), and a huge problem when the voucher program hits the courts. But, funding looks better to the East Side of Salt Lake, and wealthy areas of the State.

But these are just my opinions. Someone else may read something else into the facts. If you do have any questions, please read up on the facts behind the voucher system from the link supplied above. If nothing else, you should be educated regarding the issues you vote on in as impartial a way as possible.

2 comments:

Thad said...

In regards to your "possible court case," the US Supreme Court has already ruled that vouchers can be used for private parochial schools. See the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/06/27/scotus.school.vouchers/
I think that part of the argument is just FUD.

Jeremy Robb said...

Thanks for the information Thad! I was focusing on the information pamphlet, and the concerns that were raised there by the impartial analysis. It appears that the information was dated before the voucher system reached the Supreme Court. That being said, there is no guarantee that it still will not be challenged based on any differences between the Ohio system and the Utah system.

And it still doesn't answer the questions of educational certifications (which are not required based on the voter information pamphlet), nor the questions of accreditation. And I don't see any benefits to the West Side, only a growing disparity between the East and West when it comes to educational funding.